A New Youth for a New Australia

Dr Val Noone


Paper for Australian Association for the Study of Religions National Conference

Australian Catholic University, Aquinas Campus, Ballarat, 6-9 July 1995

(Originally published in Footprints, Journal of the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission, December 1995)


For the late Kevin Smith

National Chaplain

Australian Young Christian Workers



Prologue: origins of YCW

Late but apt response to the industrial revolution

Christian cells with working-class spirit

A different prayer for the girls' groups

Australian adaptation by Lombard and others

Australian YCW 's founding vision

An autobiographical note

Australian YCW in the 1950s
Teenagers of the fifties

Taking a positive look at the fifties

'Negative anti-communism is doing nothing'

Seeking an Australian flavour

Rock 'n' roll as a problem

A strict view of sexual morality

Internationalists but silent about the Bomb

What to say and do about the new prosperity?

Bodgies and widgies

French influences

Cardijn visit 1958 - ahead of the Council

Conclusion: strengths and limits of YCW
Fifties seedbed not cemetery

Tomorrow's YCW?

ABSTRACT: One of the most flourishing Australian church youth groups in the years following World War II was a Catholic one, the Young Christian Workers (YCW). Drawing on files of YCW publications, interviews, and personal experience, the author tables new material on the organisation's prayers and activities, its Australian adaptations of European influences, its responses to issues such as rock 'n' roll, sexual morality, anti-communism, the Bomb, and bodgies and widgies. The conclusion drawn is that the 1950s, often portrayed as a cemetery, were, rather, a seedbed for many of the social changes of the 1960s.


For over fifty years, 'A new youth for a new Australia' has been the motto of the Australian section of an international Catholic youth organisation, the Young Christian Workers (YCW). This group has played an influential but insufficiently celebrated role in Australian Catholic religious life and deserves serious attention from scholars, pastors, young people and parents alike in the 1990s.1

My summary view of the Australian YCW's growth is that the 1940s and 1950s were years of dramatic expansion, thousands of branch members, many leaders groups and large sports competitions but around the late 1960s and into the 1970s its numbers started to decline. Without going into the reasons for that decline in numbers here, it is important to note that there were both internal factors and external ones including a smear campaign by the National Civic Council and an accompanying withdrawal of financial and moral support by the bishops. Through the 1980s and 1990s a small movement continues, growing in numbers and largely self-supporting. In recent years, it has regained official support from some bishops.

Sources about the Australian YCW are many and varied. Tens of thousands of past members are alive and many are willing to talk. For example, at a recent bible study group at St Joseph's parish, Collingwood, Sister Shirley Fitzgerald of Good Shepherd Youth and Family Services delighted younger participants with stories of her days as a YCW organiser in Perth in the early 1940s. The organisation itself has produced many valuable books, pamphlets and magazines from around 1940. There are collections of YCW archives in several states, including one at the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission and another at the valuable YCW museum collection managed by Bill Cassidy at the YCW Camp at Phillip Island. In addition, writers such as Vincent Buckley, Edmund Campion, Gerard Henderson, Paul Ormonde and Bartholomew Santamaria have discussed its crucial opposition (along with others such as the Catholic Worker group and the Newman Society of Victoria) to the Movement style of Catholicism of the 1940s and 1950s. However, they say little about the years following the split in the Australian Labor Party, that is, 1955 to now. Around 1960 there was an upsurge of publishing on the Australian YCW by the organisation itself and also by Geoffrey Chapman. That year, for example, the Melbourne YCW published some of Cardijn's addresses as The Young Worker Faces Life: and John Molony wrote a book called Towards an Apostolic Laity which outlined the principles of Catholic Action as exemplified in YCW, that is, as not exemplified in the Catholic Social Studies Movement. In his 1990 book, Tree of Wooden Clogs, Hugh O'Sullivan has written about the present-day application of the YCW spirit to Australian conditions. That same year, John Maguire's important book, Prologue: a history of the Catholic Church as seen from Townsville, gave serious attention to the role of the YCW in northeast Australia which began with articles and discussions in 1938. In her history of the Catholic Church in South Australia, Margaret Press summarises the way that YCW and YCS 'found fertile soil in the South Australian dioceses'. In my book, Disturbing the War: Melbourne Catholics and Vietnam, I have traced the slow but important shift in the YCW over the Vietnam War. However, no overall history of the Australian YCW has been published.

There exists an incomplete manuscript of a commissioned history written by David Kehoe. I understand that several key figures among the founders of the Australian YCW judged that this manuscript, though valuable, needs substantial revision in order to incorporate better the experiences, attitudes and general orientation of the national organisation. To date, I have had only a brief opportunity to scan the manuscript and accompanying comments.

From a personal perspective, a Melbourne and male one at that, this paper is a tiny contribution to the large task of setting down the Australian YCW story which I regard as one of the most important stories in recent Australian religious history. I will draw on the above mentioned sources, personal experience, conversations with past and present members but I will give special attention to the period about 1960 and report on my recent research among a file of the YCW's newspaper, New Youth, at the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission. I wish to thank the archivist there, Steven De Witt, for his thoughtful assistance. If I help re-awaken interest in the Jocist approach - what that is I will explain below - and if I stimulate others to put down some of what they recall of Australian YCW history before it is too late, I will regard this paper as a success.

Prologue: Origins of the YCW

A late but apt Christian response to the industrial revolution

In 1919, amid the devastation left by World War I, following sentences in jail for his patriotic activities in resisting occupation by the Kaiser's army, after starting a number of experimental youth groups, a 37 year-old Flemish priest in Belgium named Joseph Cardijn began a movement among young workers called La Jeunesse Syndicaliste (the Young Trade Unionists) which five years later was re-named Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne (Young Christian Workers) (JOC and YCW). Working with Cardijn in founding the YCW were Marguerite Fievez, Paul Garcet, Jacques Meert, Fernand Tonnet and others.

This beginning in 1919 came some sixty years after the Communist Manifesto and the International Workingmen's Association.

One year later, in 1925, Pope Pius XI gave the movement his blessing. As Eugene Langdale remarked, Cardijn often told the story of that moment:
'Here at last,' said the Pope, 'is someone who speaks to me about the masses! The greatest scandal of the nineteenth century was the loss of the workers to the Church. The Church needs the workers and the workers need the Church.'2

Cardijn told this story on his visits to Australia in 1958 and 1966.

Cardijn usually added another autobiographical story. In 1903, as a young seminarian, he was called home to his father's death bed. Henri Cardijn, illiterate, high-principled and sympathetic to the socialist movement, had worked hard all his life as, among other things, a small dealer in coal. Joseph described the scene this way:

... on entering the room where my poor father lay dying, I knelt beside him and received his blessing from his old, wrinkled hands, worn by ceaseless toil. Before that man who was so valiant, so great, I swore to give myself entirely, to die for the working class.3

Thus it was that Cardijn expected the members of the YCW to be part of a genuine working class movement.

The Europe of industrial revolution into which YCW was born has been portrayed most strikingly in two recent films, Daens and Germinal, both of which are set near Cardijn's birthplace in Flanders, one in Belgium and the other in northern France, and both of which have been released on video. Henri Cardijn had taken the young Joseph to hear Daens at mass rallies.

Christian cells with working-class spirit

The key to the movement was the formation of small groups or cells not unlike today's Basic Christian Communities in Latin America. A typical YCW meeting would include ten or so members, take about an hour, and include three core parts - review of life, discussion of a gospel passage, and planning of action. The principle behind this became known as the See, Judge and Act method, or the jocist method.

Down the ages many others have seen the wisdom in such a form of organisation, but YCW applied it to the situation of young Christian workers in industrial society. The formation of YCW came late in the history of the industrial revolution but it was nonetheless most appropriate. Indeed, in my view, it is outstanding not just when seen in relation to Catholicism but also for its leadership within Christianity as a whole.

Edmund Campion has summed up well the style of the YCW:

... it is a genuinely lay movement, which the laity run themselves. ... instead of escaping into some sort of lay monastery, its members are expected to engage passionately in the world around them. Likewise, they are expected to remain true to their class.

For such reasons Campion judged the YCW 'the outstanding lay movement in twentieth-century Catholicism'. This contrasts with Gerard Henderson's apparent view that the prime aim of the YCW was the defensive one of winning back lost Catholic workers to the Church. Cardijn, as Campion noted, 'encouraged members to wrestle with the problems of their fellow-workers in a way that brings Christian judgements to bear on everyday life'.4

Some of the spirit of the movement is conveyed by the YCW prayer used at the opening of meetings and, for many years, distributed to members of the Australian section:

Lord Jesus,

A Worker like me,

Help me, and all my fellow workers,

to think like You,

to work with You,

to pray through You,

to live in You,

to give You all my strength and all my time.

May Your Kingdom come

in all our factories, farms,



and in all our homes.

Be everywhere better known,

better loved,

better served.

Deliver us forever from injustice and hatred,

from evil and sin.

May our souls remain in Your Grace today,

and may the soul of every worker

who died on labour's battlefield

rest in peace. Amen.

Around 1960 this was followed by prayers to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a prayer to Mary called 'The Memorare'. At the end of the meeting, the Ignatian prayer, 'Lord Jesus teach me to be generous' was used followed by prayers for the Pope and also for the Conversion of Australia.5

Of the many points in the YCW prayer, the one that strikes many hearers as exceptional is the call for solidarity with 'every worker who died on labour's battlefield'. No wonder that, as Campion remarked, Cardijn's 'whole-hearted acceptance of the working-class ethos shocked some of the middle class'.6

A different prayer for the girls' groups

The prayer above was not used in Australian National Catholic Girls' Movment (NCGM), that is, YCW girls' groups. Instead they adopted one from Cardinal John Henry Newman:

Dear Jesus help me to spread Thy fragrance everywhere I go;

Flood my soul with Thy spirit and light. Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life may only be a radiance of Thine.

Shine through me, and be so in me, that every soul I come in contact with may feel Thy presence in my soul.

Let them look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus.

Stay with me and then I shall begin to shine as Thou shinest so to shine as to be a light to others. The light, O Jesus, will be all from Thee. None of it will be mine. It will be Thou shining on others through me.

Let me thus praise Thee in the way in which Thou dost love best by shining on those around me.

Let me preach Thee without preaching - not by my words - but by my example, the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what I do, the evident fullness of the love my heart bears to Thee. Amen.7

The NCGM was strong and numerous. It produced many booklets and the journals, Spotlight, Beacon and Girl's World. I look forward to hearing and reading members' accounts.

Australian adaptation by Lombard and others around 1940

During Cardijn's 1958 visit, the Australian YCW offered a summary history of the early years of the male section. It gave 8 September 1941 as the date of foundation of the YCW in Australia which seems to be the date on which Archbishop Mannix gave his formal mandate to the organisation with that name.8

From 1930 to 1939 a number of priests and laity in Australia, encouraged by the bishops, were getting lay groups, mostly adult, started as Catholic Action. Kevin Kelly and others translated and circulated materials from the European YCW. In Melbourne, some priests started getting members of the mainly sporting and social organisation, Catholic Boys Legion, 'to accept responsibilities of improving the lives of their fellow youth'. Notable among these was Father Frank Lombard in 1938 at Northcote who got his CBL committee to be in effect a leaders' group. The anonymous writer in New Youth commented:

Without calling it such, the boys were doing an enquiry into the lives of the youth of the parish. They were also doing contacts and had teams of a kind, as each committeeman was responsible for a lad in a section of the parish.

Lombard gave a talk at each meeting but was not game to introduce the gospel discussion as it would be too heavy for the lads. He did include it later and was gratified by the reaction to it.

As people saw the need for local literature, Rev. J. H. Cleary and Rev. J. F. Kelly edited the first Australian YCW booklets which were roneoed by Sister Mary Magdalene of the Good Samaritan order. Her typing class helped with the work. Around the same time, Father P. Cotter, John Daly and John Carson were getting YCW groups going in Newcastle. There were at first a YCW-Male and a YCW-Female but the latter became known as the National Catholic Girls Movement for many years before reverting to the name YCW in 1959 and then later linking up as one organization.

Members were originally in the 14-18 year old group due to conflict with the older, and in its day thriving, organisation, Catholic Young Men's Society - which also deserves researchers' attention - but later the age was raised to 25. Lombard was the official chaplain and Archbishop Justin Simonds was the first episcopal chairman: the rest of the leadership were lay. Leo Tyrell became the first diocesan president and Frank McCann the first secretary. With the increased ferocity of World War II, overseas YCW links were broken and Tyrell went into the Royal Australian Air Force. Ted Long and Kevin Toomey (later a priest and national chaplain) came forward as leaders. Apart from parish groups some larger activities were organised such as holiday camps and, for five years beginning in 1941, a series of big youth rallies at Xavier College. A men's extension committe was formed which helped in setting up a hostel at Albert Park, a holiday camp at Phillip Island and a training school at Maiya Wamba, Cheltenham. The first national conference was held in Melbourne in 1944. In 1947 Ted Long attended an International YCW conference in Montreal and a couple of years later Lombard went to meet Cardijn. The 'dynamic' McCann went to work for the first YCW cooperative trading society. Subsequent national secretaries to 1958 were Terry Barker, Bill Ginnane and Jim Wilson. National presidents were Ted Long, John Doherty and Brian Gleeson. They and others such as Brian Hayes and Jim Ross attended international meetings in Brussels, Rome, Singapore, Manila and New Delhi.

Growth continued. By 1955 there were 5000 members in 17 Australian dioceses. By 1958, the paper was carrying stories in Italian, Dutch and German 'for our new Australian friends'. Over the years there were appeals for financial and other help to YCW groups in Ireland (Falls Road), Nigeria, Philippines and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Among prominent members, the paper listed Herb Elliot of Olympic 1500 metres fame from the West Australian branch, Bill Stephen captain of Fitzroy football team and John Cann of Broken Hill who won a Stawell Gift. Bert de Luca from the Fitzroy group was the editor and publisher of the paper.

Australian YCW 's founding vision

The initial program of the Australian YCW reflected an idealistic mood widespread in society towards the end of World War II - after years of depression and war, politicians and voters alike were talking a lot about the prospects for a more just post-war society. In common with other mainstream youth groups at the time - and perhaps in contrast to the then strong communist youth group Eureka Youth League - the early Australian YCW wanted change in society to be based on family life. Along with some 500 delegates from 35 organisations at a conference organised by the Associated Youth Comittee of the National Fitness Council of Victoria in June 1944, 50 YCW representatives argued that the state should contribute to family well-being but not be allowed to control the family. They wanted more and better housing schemes, an increase in the birth rate, stronger penalties for abortion, and restrictions on the manufacture of contraceptives. Along with the other groups, YCW urged that post-war reconstruction must have spiritual values as found in the Ten Commandments. They asked that more youth groups be run by young people with better training of leaders and better buildings. YCW was, however, opposed to youth and community centres under the control of the state as this would 'destroy the influence of the home' and 'simply continue the system of secular education with the same ghastly results'. In commenting on the conference, New Youth singled out contraception as a major social evil.

Around 1944, the Melbourne YCW drew up its own fifteen-point program for 'a new Australia'. Number one was:

our youth opposes conditions where, after fifty hours of work, we are often obliged to spend ten to fifteen hours of our own leisure time at night school. This is sweating.

They went on to demand that youth not be left jobless after the war, saying that soldier preference was understandable, but youth must not be sacrificed. Dead-end jobs must be abolished and as part of that they will set up a vocational guidance scheme. Basing their views on the dignity of the young worker, they emphasised not only the role of sport, holiday camps, hikes and dances but also the need for proper ventilation and light in factories, savings schemes and an end to slum conditions. They opposed the 'materialist profit-seeking press' and 'above all, unscrupulous Hollywood producers'. In summary they said:
we believe that Young Christian Workers must change the world. ...; we shall do our utmost to restore a love and knowledge of Christ to the youth of Australia - fighting vigorously for justice without hatred even for our most bitter enemies.

A leading Protestant clergyman, Rev Irving Benson, wrote to New Youth with praise for 'a crusading little paper with the great objective of building a new Australia'.9

An Autobiographical Note

My first contact with Cardijn and the jocist method was through my membership of a twelve-member Young Christian Students (YCS) leaders' group at De La Salle College Malvern in 1956. The YCS was a student variation on the jocist method, organised nationally in Australia with the support of the bishops. Brother Frederick Mullens was the adult responsible for convening that all-male group although we were part of a diocese-wide network and took part in combined meetings with girls' schools such as Sacre Coeur, Mandeville Hall and Kildara. Along with Brian Parker, I was founding editor of a YCS school newspaper called Juventus which Peter Kelly, in his annual report on the group, described as 'well received and a very valuable medium for YCS work in the future'. Kelly's kind words omit some critical responses. The good reception was by some students and teachers but our editing of Wally Meehan's rave review of his 'test-drive' of a vintage motor car resulted in a few laughs but some criticisms for abuse of editorial power. Moreover, an editorial calling for co-education was not well received by the acting principal, Brother Colman Molloy, who called us in and warned us to keep off such an important plank of school policy. Reading Kelly's report forty years later I am struck by a point he chose to record from an address to YCS on 'the apostolate' by a Father Burke:
He showed how Catholic students have long been over-impressed with the idea that the sole object of their lives was to prepare for later life.

By taking daily experience seriously in the spirit of Cardijn, YCS encouraged students to focus on student life as such. One could delete the word 'Catholic' in this quotation and see here a shift in emphasis that would flower in the student movements of the 1960s.10

In 1957 as a student at the diocesan seminary, Corpus Christi College, Werribee, I joined a class with a record number of former YCW members-turned-seminarians. The names I recall are Kevin Drill, Frank Hornby, Kevin Power and Peter Robinson. These four, and especially Robinson and Hornby, took care to instruct young school leavers such as myself in the virtues of YCW. Indeed I recall joining a study group on Catholic Action with some of them and Thomas Furey where we worked through Challenge to Action, a collection of Cardijn's speeches. The one that stands out in my memory is entitled, 'The hour of the working class'. Speaking in 1948, Cardijn outlined the characteristics of modern industrial working conditions and argued that 'the workers' problem' (Cardijn's phrase for all the issues facing the industrial working class) had to be taken seriously by Christians and that it existed separately of agitation by communists and socialists. He emphasised the global nature of the economy and the need for international consciousness and action by workers. He based his case on the dignity of every young worker which derived from God's plan, and he wanted the YCW to be educative, apostolic and missionary. He said:
A negative attitude is a death-blow to the Church. To be merely anti-Communist or anti-Socialist is doing nothing.11

He held up the example of office workers, seamstresses and dressmakers with good jobs, who answered his call around 1910 to go and work in the worst factories in Brussels. For him, the YCW was 'a school of worker leaders'. Studying such texts in the company of former YCW leaders made a good school for me.

Also part of the seminary emphasis on YCW was the priority given to it as a future pastoral strategy by the reforming rector, Charles Mayne. He arranged a series of visiting speakers, including Joseph Cardijn himself and the international vice-president Maria Meerschman.

During the years 1957-1960 while I was a student at Corpus Christi College, Werribee, the following were visiting speakers: Fr Kevin Toomey and Martin Tominovich on Young Christian Workers (YCW) and the Hungarian refugees; Frank Clancy on cooperatives, Fr Brian Burke on the lay apostolate congress in Rome; Fr Fred Chamberlain on Young Christian Students groups he had visited overseas; Fr Kevin Toomey on YCW world congress; Miss Estelle Hughes on impressions of the YCW overseas; Brian Gleeson on impressions of world tour (these were part of a day on the lay apostolate congress); Brian Atherton on YCW in Colombo; John Doherty on problems of Australian youth; Fr John Molony on the theology of Catholic Action, Rene Delacluse on his experience in the YCW in France, Belgium, India and Australia. At Glen Waverely, 1961-1964, the following YCW visitors spoke to the students: Ted Long on principles for cooperatives, Fr Brian Burke on Cardijn and the YCW, and delegates to national YCW and YCS conferences such as Brian Hayes and Pat Mason.12

Working as a priest in the parishes of St Albans, Frankston and Ringwood from 1965-1970, I was active as a chaplain to YCW groups in each parish. At St Albans I joined with my fellow curate, John Nicholson, and YCW leaders, Rhonda Freeland, Peter Ermstrang, Paul Pokerzinksi, Margaret Galea, Des Barnard, Inge Berger, Christine Kun and others in organizing a long-running successful rock-'n'-roll dance in the western suburbs.

Cardijn's visit to Melbourne in 1966 was important to me. I spoke briefly with him about the St Albans group. I remember asking him what he thought one could say to the complaint of young workers, of whom Margaret Galea was one, that their jobs in the clothing industry were boring. As I remember it, he said, 'Tell them about the solidarity of the workers'. I was not sure what he meant - I was hoping for some plan to eradicate monotonous jobs - but I took it to mean that I should encourage them to think of group action, to think in terms of unions and also to see themselves as united to all the other workers around the world and over the years who have monotonous jobs.

Looking back on that visit, I can see how cautious Cardijn was. Australia was alive with our then new involvement in the Vietnam War. As I remember it, he spoke about the importance for the Church of identifying with the independence aspirations of people in colonised countries but without expressly linking his thoughts to Vietnam: one could come away without knowing his view on the war. Perhaps he had learned from the history of Father Daens that radical stands would cost him support from the hierarchy and he had decided to build YCW with such support. He, nonetheless, is remarkable precisely because he went so far in support of workers' issues while maintaining support from the hierarchy.

My links with YCW continued. At Frankston, the YCW ran one of the most successful football and basketball clubs for young people that I have known. At Ringwood, the group concentrated on review of life and actions at home and work with some discussion of conscription for war in Vietnam. In each group I saw that Cardijn's principles worked. I recall a remark by Frank Wilson, now of Hopper's Crossing, who summed up favourably his experience as a member of the YCW in South Melbourne in the 1950s with the remark that 'the YCW taught me to ask why'. I am currently adult assistant to the YCW group in St Joseph's parish, Collingwood.

Australian YCW in the 1950s

Teenagers of the fifties

Of the teenagers of the 1950s, most had been born in the last stages of the Great Depression and during World War II. Speaking as one of this generation, the Australian historian Humphrey McQueen has commented:
Our childhood had been rationed without too many new toys, sweets or icecreams; we were teenagers before there was television or rock-and-roll; and our first vote was either for or against Menzies. ... we were the lucky country's luckiest generation. Our parents had overfull employment while we got educated ... we were in our twenties before we realised that a joint wasn't Sunday's lunch. ... 13

McQueen's remarks neglect the suffering and loss caused by World War II; and in my working class home, parents with what he calls 'overfull employment' still had to work overtime to give us an education; but his picture is recognisable on the other points about the post-war boom. The Canadian novelist Margaret Attwood says of this generation:
We have long attention spans ... We eat everything on our plates. We save string. We make do.14

I am not sure how this influenced teenage religious thinking. Lots of Australian authors such as Josie Arnold, Kate Costigan and Domenica Nelson, Janine Burke, Bob Ellis, Barbara Hanrahan, John Hanrahan, Brian Matthews, Gerald Murnane, and Barry Oakley have offered a range of valuable reflections on youth in that period. I will juxtapose some relevant factors for your consideration.

Outdoor rallies and fears about the new 'teenager' and 'delinquent youth' culture were features of church life at this time. In 1953, 150,000 Melbourne Catholics had joined the Irish-American priest, Patrick Peyton in the Rosary Crusade at the Botanic Gardens. According to a study by David Hilliard, the fifties concluded with a peak in measurable religious practices among Australian Protestants.15 Billy Graham's first and most successful Australian crusade was in early 1959. Just how this 'upsurge' related to the economic boom, the Cold War and the nuclear threat is not clear. For example, among those Protestants organising or supporting outdoor rallies and the Billy Graham crusade were clergy opponents of the Cold War such as Alan Walker and Frank Hartley.16

Among many Catholics, devotion to Our Lady of Fatima flourished at this time, evoking, or expressing, apocalytic fears about the future. Three peasant children from Fatima, a poor village in Portugal, claimed that Mary appeared to them in six visions around 1917. Although the first of the apparitions predated the October Revolution in Russia, the message of the cult became linked to prayer and penance for the conversion of Russia. At the end of every Mass, prayers were added for this endeavour, implying that Russia under Communism was the enemy of God, and that Australia (and America) were Christian and not in need of conversion. In 1951, 80,000 gathered at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to welcome the statue of Our Lady of Fatima. Tim Morris has argued that many Australian Catholics in the 1950s were worried about the breakdown of family life - a popular slogan was 'the family that prays together stays together' - and the new forms of entertainment such as rock-and-roll but that they also assumed an apocalyptic division of the world into good and evil, 'placing extreme over-emphasis on preparations for the last days' and neglecting the Church's positive social doctrines - another slogan was 'better dead than red'. There were desires for peace and fears of totalitarianism mixed in with these.17 A recent ABC television series Brides of Christ portrayed in dramatic form many aspects of these years. According to my impressions of New Youth, the YCW was sceptical about apparitions but reflected the dominant anti-communism of the day with a variation I will note below.

For Billy Graham, New Youth showed little sympathy. The paper argued that since he had no authority from the Catholic Church those YCW members attending were acting as if they did not believe 'that the Church was the sole guard of the truths that Jesus Christ taught'. I would be interested to find out how many Catholic teenagers went to Graham's crusade. Despite New Youth's attitude on that matter, further research may show different instances within YCW of more tolerant attitudes to other Christian groups.18

Taking a positive look at the fifties

Most people recognise the sixties (1960s) as a time of social change but many of those who were active in that period were formed in the fifties (1950s). Todd Gitlin, former leader of Students for a Democratic Society and now sociology professor, in his remarkable study of the sixties in the United States of America explained:

I am going to look at the Fifties, then, as a seedbed as well as a cemetery. The surprises of the Sixties were planted there.

Gitlin goes on to try to pin down how the fifties were experienced by that minority who became leading activists of the sixties. YCW members took many paths into, out of and between the decades. I will try, nonetheless, to show some ways in which the fifties prepared for the sixties.19

'Negative anti-communism is doing nothing'

While sharing the anti-communist mentality that dominated and distorted so much thinking in Australia in the 1940s and 1950s, YCW, in general, adopted Cardijn's view that to be merely anti-communist in a negative sense was to do nothing. As I have indicated above, the Australian YCW aimed to tackle the problems of young workers in a spirit of reform. A detailed study would be needed to assess how much YCW achieved in this regard. My impression is that it made important contributions to reforms in areas such as apprenticeship conditions, credit and finance through its cooperatives and later to road safety with its successful seatbelts campaign.

While avowing that it did not seek competition with 'the Communists', conflicts with communists were part and parcel of the early years. In July 1945 YCW spoke against what it called 'the communist youth racket' led, it claimed, by the International Youth Committee in Sydney. The YCW case centred on the allegation that this committee sent unelected and unrepresentative delegates to a World Youth Conference in London. A particular target of their concerns was Bert Williams, senior vice-president of the Eureka Youth League.20

YCW was looking for a positive way forward and, at times, was conciliatory. New Youth claimed that 'hate and violence' only harmed the workers. According to their reporter, to listen to the Reds, you would think no one else except themselves was doing anything. We know, we work in factories and shops. Our eyes and ears are just as wide open as those of any Red. We Young Christian Workers are just as desperately anxious for a change as the most idealistic Moscow-man.21

At the time of the YCW's national conference in Brisbane in 1946, the local Trades and Labour Council passed a resolution against the YCW for being disruptive of the trade union movement. The organisation answered the charges and said they were prepared to work with other organisations. The secrecy of the Santamaria-Movement groups meant that all Catholic activists could be tarred with one brush.22

During the war, Catholics and Communists and Humanists had worked together against the Japanese enemy but by the mid-1950s the Cold War hatreds had revived earlier antagonisms. Writing about the French YCW in these same years, Oscar Arnal argued that, from a marxist perspective, the YCW's links with the hierarachy resulted in it often urging workers to work harmoniously with bosses. He further judged that although, at times, YCW played down class conflict it was at all times committed to democratic social reforms. Thus, with some anti-Communist positions the YCW in Australia, and in France, continued to push for social reform. It combined a defensive anti-Communist tendency with a potential for radicalism.

Seeking an Australian flavour

YCW tried to give their local movement an Australian flavour. Some Belgian and French characteristics, for example some of Cardijn's more effusive speeches, did not go down well with some laconic Australian members. Moreover, his emphasis on what he called 'the working-class mystique' was debated in an organisation where some members and leaders thought of themselves as living a prosperous, egalitarian and middle class lifestyle. These matters need discussion elsewhere.

The YCW newspaper occasionally covered topics of Australian history. For instance on the centenary of the Eureka Stockade revolt and massacre, New Youth gave prominence to the views of Rev. James Murtagh who was a member of the Melbourne Eureka Centernary Committtee. Murtagh said:

The centenary of the Eureka Stockade is of special interest to all fighters for freedom and social justice, especially Catholic youth. The masses of miners on the Ballarat field in 1854 were for the most part young men between the ages of 20 and 30, and among their leaders in the tents which ended in the massacre on Eureka Hill on Sunday 3rd December, were many Catholics, including Peter Lalor, the Commander-in-Chief.

Young Christian workers, therefore, participated in the great procession during the Eurkeka Centenary celebration at Ballarat. Murtagh reminded his readers that miners of many nations were united against taxation without representation, that they wanted universal manhood suffrage without property qualifications and, payment for members of parliament. He recalled the key roles of Father Smyth and his servant John Gregory in the story and argued:
the attempts of the Communists and their subsidiary the Eureka Youth League to make Eureka their own is, thefore, a travesty of history, while the effort to link Peter Lalor with marxist revolution is answered by the Commander-in-Chief himself. In answer to an attack on his political views, Peter Lalor replied: "I would ask those gentlemen what they mean by the term 'democracy'? Do they mean Chartism or Communism or Republicanism? If so, I never was, I am not now, nor do I ever intend to be a Democrat. But if a Democrat means opposition to a tryannical press, a tyrannical people or a tryannical government, then I have ever been, I am still, and will ever remain, a Democrat."23

YCW at times took a nationalist view on the issue of visiting American entertainers. Their paper appreciated the visits to Australia by Ella Fitzgerald, Jerry Colonna, Artie Shaw, Buddy Rich and Johnny Ray (twice) but they were concerned about jobs for the local musicians and singers. They added their voice to that of the unions calling for more controls on visiting overseas artists.24

Rock 'n' roll as a problem

When Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and the Comets and others became popular around 1955, YCW along with many other people were puzzled by the change. Over the years they carried articles on jazz and later on the folk revival. Here are some of its views on rock 'n' roll.

At first, the leadership was inclined to oppose the new music. In March 1959, when a 'Sister Dorothea' in Sydney told the press that the Church should welcome rock 'n' roll, Jim Ross, the national secretary, commented:
Many youths, both boys and girls, claim that the very rhythm has for them a sensual effect and, therefore, it is more difficult to maintain one's poise and reason. Indeed, instances of where boys lose their respect for girls are legion ... the two main failings of rock 'n' roll are the lack of modesty and the lack of restraint.25

But, this view did not last. By April, the paper was saying:

we are not prudes, but just ordinary fun-loving Australians who are concerned to work out the problems of young people together.26

This seems to indicate some strong reader reaction. And, indeed, they announced that they were not going to enter into the question of the relative merits of various styles of music. By 1963, the paper was listing the top forty hits along with comments and reviews.

However, they maintained their suspicion of entertainment promoters who were exploiting the young people. In particular, they mocked Lee Gordon's publicly expressed definition of morality that 'if there's a quid in it, it must be good.'27

A strict view of sexual morality

Although over time they modified their views, a range of new forms of entertainment were a worry to the YCW leadership. In 1958, the paper interviewed a number of 'fellows' about dancing at the new jazz clubs such as 431, Dominoes and High Society which were springing up in the capital cities. The paper gave its view of sexual morality in these situations:
We as Christians know that whenever boy and girl are together, nothing may be done that tends directly to rouse each others passions:

_ dimming lights does do this.

_ dancing cheek to cheek does do this,

_ not moving more than three or four feet in a dance does do this.

Sure, these are the things that go on at many a dance. These are the things that will tempt you to commit sin. In the matter of 'power-housing', girls, you have a great responsiblity here. You can either lead a chap on or stop him dead in his tracks if he tries to 'powerhouse'. It is your duty to stop him just as much as it is his duty in the first place not to start. After all, if your passions are aroused then you can be sure his are. Dance promoters have a tremendous reponsibility ... Have you formed your atttiude towards dancing?

In addition to this warning, the paper challenged the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops which had spoken out against abortion but for birth control, and declared that 'birth control can never be justified'.28

Internationalists but silent about the Bomb

During the 1950s, the Australian YCW newspaper tried to put before its readers an international perspective and linked that to the concept of the Mystical Body of Christ. Leaders who visited groups in other countries and attended international conferences gave reports. A particular link was built with the YCW in Ceylon through Father H. Schram, OMI. Readers could learn of the problems faced by YCW in that country were few workers were literate and many earned tenpence a day. YCW there sold 6000 copies of its paper. The response in Australia was to collect money, old clothes and books to send over and also to publicise the situation. In 1959, the paper took a sympathetic view of the revolution in Cuba led by Fidel Castro as some key YCW leaders in that country had taken part in the overthrow of the dictator Battista. When Bernie Docherty, an Australian who had been working as a YCW organiser in India for three years, married an Indian, the paper gave front page treatment to the wedding.

In the 1940s the paper kept a small interest in Australian links with Ireland but by the mid-1950s it was emphasising that 'Australians must realise that they are an important nation in the Southeast Asian area'. The paper tried to encourage that realisation but, in general, did so within the Cold War framework.29 However, a number of YCW principles would later lead some key members to challenge that worldview during the Vietnam War.

The paper appears to be have been silent about the nuclear issue. In 1945, it seems to make no mention of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in 1961, seems to ignore the Cuban missile crisis of October that year. Elsewhere in Australia, some Christians spoke out on the implications for Christians of living in the nuclear age. In New Youth, I sense a taboo on talking about the problem. This may be connected to the size of the problem and reflect a wish to put it in the too hard basket. It may also be related to the difficulties many Catholics had in those years of working with communists. When the Communist Party of Australia, then aligned with the Soviet Union, spoke loudly about the dangers of the US nuclear arsenal many Catholics did not feel free to agree.

Australian YCW leaders of the 1950s assumed, as did most of their contemporaries, that the existing economic system was a given that could be reformed but not overthrown. The intervening forty years have made it clearer that this world order is, for most people, not working and that the problems of world hunger, nuclear threat and environmental ruin demand a new world order.

What to say and do about the new prosperity?

New Youth's response to the Marlon Brando film, The Wild One, indicates a thoughtful approach to contemporary society. Quoting from a Canadian YCW paper, they suggested that the film captures the mood of a section of American youth:

namely, fellows and girls at the corner store, office, factory and dance hall who are restless and anxious to express themselves and feel important. It shows what happened when a mischievous gang of motor cyclists invade a small American town during a weekend. Gradual small incidents multiply, a cafe owner too willing to sell beer, the frenzy of "gone" jazz, lax law enforcement, the visit of a rival motor cycle club and the hostility of local citizen suddenly erupt into a flaming nightmare of violence and destruction, culminating in the accidental death of an innocent man. This film certainly is not in the same class as On the Waterfront but it carries a sobering message for that section of the community who 'lairise' on motor bikes. Undoubtedly the greatest shortcoming of this adult drama is the sickly 'love' scene between Brando and his leading lady. - B. J.30

Taking such films seriously was indicative of a group of young people questioning society's values. Along with Rebel Without a Cause Brando's film was a sign of changes to come.

There was in those days a lot of newspaper talk about 'delinquent youth'. John Doherty, national president around 1957, remarked to a seminary audience of which I was part that it was not the youth that were delinquent but the society.

Bodgies and widgies

The debates about bodgies and widgies coincided with other fears. In May 1955, at the height of the split in the ALP, page one of New Youth warned YCW members that 'our nation's fate rests in your hands' because 'we are menaced today by an evil force more destructive than any plague. The scourge of COMMUNISM [caps in original] has brought death and torture to many another country - now Austrlia is ear-marked.' The editor was worried that young people were going to the races and the football and ignoring 'the vicious fifth column' in our midst.31

At the same time, from Adelaide and Tasmania came reports that police and welfare workers had growing worries about the bodgie-widgie cult. Spokespeople said that 'only a determined effort by a Christian community will remove the causes of the problem'. Among the causes of the problem listed were gangs and shopkeepers selling contraceptives along with chocolates and 'candy'. Father J. J. Ryan of Brooklyn Park in Adelaide spoke of 'psychologically immature' young people, 'social misfits and a potential social evil'.32

Ryan linked the bodgie-widgie cult to his unease about growing consumerism and prosperity. He argued that the young rebels had no ideals and came from homes that were 'not real homes':
a home is not made by laying of a wall-wall carpet, or by providing deep, comfy chairs for rest and relaxation ... the atmosphere of a home does not depend upon pastel shades or the orientation of bricks and mortar. But yet these things are accepted criteria of a good home, even by public authorities and social welfare workers.

For him there were more important things in a good home:
communication of thought, understanding, affection and guidance ... Home furnishing, like beauty, is only skin deep ...The bodgie type may come from a comfortable house; he can rarely be the product of a good home.

An underlying cause, in Ryan's view, was the harmful role played by the radio and amusements industry.

French influences

The Australian YCW in the 1950s was influenced by the extraordinary vitality of the French church. Among some YCW circles, Maisie Ward's 1949 translation of and commentary on Abbe Henri Godin and Yves Daniel's book France, Pays de mission, in English, France Pagan?, contributed to a line of thinking that was critical of middle-class Christianity and the new consumerism of the post-war boom. Godin and Daniel were YCW chaplains who reported on their experiences in 'the Red section of Paris'. Godin's prayer which circulated among some - I copied it out in longhand to keep in my daily prayer book - included a petition 'Lord, from being a bourgeois priest, deliver me'. Also at this time, copies of Henri Perrin's, Priest and Worker, with its account of the priest-worker movement stimulated some radical thinking among those who would become activists of the 1960s. Cardijn and the International YCW were critical of a danger of downgrading the role of the laity which they saw in the priest-worker movement.

In these years, some in the Australian YCW were uneasy about the influence of American culture on Australian Christianity and were in dialogue with Belgian and French sources of inspiration for responding to the new post-war world.

Cardijn visit 1958 - ahead of the Council

During Cardijn's 1958 visit, the Australian YCW took time to assess its first seventeen years. The YCW paper spoke of 'a movement solidly established, conscious of its missionary role, able to give evidence of its effective building of new youth; and confident that under God's grace it will fulfil its high ideals.' They spoke too of the international YCW. On the cover of the souvenir issue of New Youth, published by Bert de Luca, there is a dramatic photograph of Cardijn with hands raised and open mouth and the caption, 'I lay down my life to save the working class'. On this tour, Cardijn included visits to India, Vietnam, Japan, Iraq and Lebanon. In 1957, the International YCW had 35,000 members in 87 countries.33

The style of spirituality of the YCW is clear from the quotation from Cardijn that they chose to feature prominently in the publicity for his visit:
It is not your business to imitate priests and religious. You are lay people, young workers, engaged couples, tomorrow, fathers, wives, mothers. The worker's tools stand in his hand as the chalice and paten in the hands of the priest. Just as the priest offers the Body and Blood of Christ on the paten and in the chalice so the worker-apostle must learn to offer to Christ, in and with his tools, the sufferings of Christ, the tiredness and weariness of Christ, with which he is united as part of the Mystical Body. It is not a question in the factory of having a rosary or a missal in one's hands. In the factory the tools of the job are in one's hands. You have to work: but you have also to learn a spirituality in which one's work becomes one's prayer. Our work should be a continuous Mass in union with the priest at the altar. The hosts are the millions upon millions of workers in the workshops, the offices, the factories, and they are all placed on that paten by the side of the great Host which is Christ ... There is no religion to one side of life - no prayer to one side of life. Such prayer, such religion would be false. Prayer and religion must transform life, make life divine, re-link the lives of men to the life of God.

This is before Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. The young workers producing the Australian YCW newspaper were in touch with a radical stream in contemporary Catholicism.

Conclusion: Strengths and Weaknesses of YCW

Without a thorough history one cannot accurately trace internal tensions, delineate phases, assess achievements and failures and so on, but I wish to record here a few reflections on the material I have outlined above.

Fifties seedbed not cemetery

On a couple of key points, the Australian YCW of the 1950s, and the 1940s, prepared the way for the Second Vatican Council and, indeed, with adaptation, prepared the ground for the sort of Church which I believe is needed into the twenty-first century. YCW promoted lay initiative and leadership, it sought to combat injustice in the world of work, and took everyday things seriously. Encouraging young people to ask questions, it acted on its principle that the apostles of young people must be young people. The organisation fitted in with the suburban parish structures but found the need for special interest groups as well. The method of organisation into small cells fits with how the Church was organised in New Testament times and, judging by the way this method of organisation has grown in Latin America and the Philippines, it seems to be a suitable form of community life for today and for tomorrow.

Tomorrow's YCW?

The YCW had a conflicting and ambiguous view of itself: partly it was an official Catholic organisation with a mission to bring workers to church, partly it was an organisation of young workers struggling to do away with the injustices facing them. The YCW set out to both bring about justice for the working class and also to convert the working class to Jesus Christ. There were arguments about whether membership should be restricted to Catholics in good standing with the hierarchy. It seems likely that in future such organisations will be independent of the Church hierarchy and are likely to include people of different belief systems. Members today in a number of countries are already grappling with the difficulties of talking in several religious languages or of speaking without reference at all to religious language.

Many YCW members made big efforts to handle such tensions in their position. By 1952 the French YCW had come to acknowledge them:
As persons, we are in a unique engagement, ... we are miliant Christian workers: active members of the church and active members of the temporal realm. Sometimes we suffer an internal dislocation; this the fatal tension of those who are crucified. But we are sure that, in struggling for justice, for liberty, for love, our unique effort is valuable and efficacious ... for the Kingdom of God and the human order as well.34

I am interested in further discussion of whether, or how, the basic ideas of YCW can be adapted in our day.


1 I would like to thank Mary Doyle for her critical comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

2 Eugene Langdale (ed.) Challenge to Action: Addresses of Monsignor Joseph Cardijn, Melbourne, Geoffrey Chapman, 1955, see Langdale's 'Introduction' p.11. For these opening paragraphs see also Michael de la Bedoyère, The Cardijn Story, London, Longmans, 1958, and Marguerite Fievez and Jacques Meert, Cardijn, translated by Edward Mitchinson with a Preface by Dom Helder Camara, London, Young Christian Workers, 1974.

3 Op. cit., p. 8.

4 Edmund Campion, Rockchoppers: Growing up Catholic in Australia, Melbourne, Penguin, 1982, p. 190. Campion returns to the history of YCW in his Australian Catholics, Melbourne, Penguin, 1987. Gerard Henderson, Mr Santamaria and the Bishops, Manly, Studies in the Christian Movement, 1982, p. 28.

5 'YCW Prayercard', copy in my possession, no date but probably 1960s.

6 Rockchoppers, p. 190.

7 Anon, Studies in Catholic Action: a Practical Approach, Melbourne, Australian National Secretariat of Catholic Action, 1948, p. 75.

8 'The Australian YCW story: a story of achievement', New Youth, vol. 14, nos 9-10 (September-October 1958).

9 'YCW's 15 point programme for young workers', 'National committee appointed: four states represented', 'Youth speaks on youth problems: Australian Youth Committee conference reviewed', New Youth, no. 2 (July 1944). Issue no. 1 is missing from the set I used at the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission.

10 Peter Kelly, 'Catholic Action: YCS', in Blue and Gold 1956, annual school magazine, De La Salle College, Malvern, 1956, pp. 23-24.

11 Langdale (ed.), p. 61.

12 Val Noone, 'A slice of post-war Australian Christian intellectual life: a view from a seminary', paper for 'Studying Australian Christianity: an Interdisciplinary and National Conference', Robert Menzies College, Macquarie University, 14-16 July 1993, p. 13.

13 Humphrey McQueen, From Gallipoli to Petrov: Arguing with Australian History, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1984, pp. 104-105. Television began in Melbourne in November 1956 at the time of the Olympic Games.

14 Margaret Attwood, Cat's Eye, London, Virago, 1990, p. 89.

15 David Hilliard, 'God in the suburbs: the religious culture of Australian cities in the 1950s', Historical Studies, no. 97 (October 1991), pp. 399-419; and 'Popular religion in Australia in the 1950s: a study of Adelaide and Brisbane', Journal of Religious History, 15.2 (December 1988), pp. 219-235.

16 Marion Hartley, Truth Shall Prevail: the Reverend Councillor Francis John Hartley BA BD, Melbourne, Spectrum 1982. Valerie O'Beirne, 'The peace parsons: the involvement of clergy in peace movements during the 1950s', MA thesis, Monash University, History Department, 1984.

17 Tim Morris, 'Into the Valley of Megiddon: Apocalypticism and Australian Catholicism 1945-1955', BA Hons thesis, Australian National University, History Department, 1973.

18 'Our attitude to Evangelist Billy', New Youth, vol. 15, no. 3 (March 1959)

19 Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, New York, Bantam, 1987,p. 12.

20 'Faked world youth conference', New Youth, May 1946, p.1.

21 'Hate and violence only harms workers: We're not competing with the Communists', 'YCW national conference Brisbane', New Youth, no. 11 (August 1945).

22 'Disruptive! Sectarian! Political! YCW ideals as interpreted by the EYL', New Youth, January 1946, p. 3.

23 James Murtagh, 'What eureka means to us', New Youth, vol. 10, no. 11 (December 1954 - January 1955), pp. 1,3.

24 'For and against US entertainers', New Youth, June 1955.

25 'Tot up that score on rock 'n' roll', New Youth, vol. 15, no. 3 (March 1959).

26 'Rockers - don't be tripped up', 'Rock 'n' roll stems from jazz: lacks the variety to satisfy youth's emotions', New Youth, vol 15, no. 4 (April 1959).

27 '"If there's a quid in it - it must be good"', New Youth, vol. 18, no. 2 (February 1962), p. 1.

28 'Why do you go dancing? how much of it is just off-beat sex?', 'Birth control can never be justified', New Youth, vol. 14, no. 11 (November 1958), p. 3.

29 For example, 'Australia and its duty to Asia', New Youth, July 1955, p. 5. 'YCW helps restore peace in Cuba', New Youth, vol 15, no. 2 (February 1959), p. 1. 'Bernie's bride', New Youth, vol. 19, no. 11 (November 1963).

30 'The Wild One', New Youth, vol 11, no 1 (February 1955), p. 8. The paper's usual reviewer was Ivan Hutchinson who had judged On the Waterfront the best film of 1954. Hutchinson's reviews in New Youth show that wide knowledge and clear English style which he would use for decades afterwards.

31 'Our nation's fate rests in your hands', New Youth, vol. 11 no. 4 (May 1955), p. 1.

32 'Bodgies cause concern: Adelaide cases', 'Bodgies and widgies and why', New Youth, vol. 11 no. 4 (May 1955), pp. 3, 4.

33 'The Australian YCW story: a story of achievement', New Youth, vol. 14, nos 9-10 (September-October 1958), souvenir issue for Cardijn visit.

34 Oscar Arnal, Priests in Working-Class Blue: the History of the Worker-Priests (1943-1954), New York, Paulist Press, 1986, p. 29.